Italian culture

Meet Giugliano

Photo:  Lauren Farkas

It was our first time to visit the Tuscan hilltop town of Volterra. We had become well familiar with other towns such as San Gimigniano, Sienna, and Monterigione, but we had somehow missed Volterra until we heard Rick Steves recommend it.

We found ourselves in front of a 2,500-year-old Etruscan gate and fascinated by a compelling story of saving the town from Nazi destruction during World War II, as told to us by our tour guide. But I had noticed something out of the corner of my eye: we had passed a small doorway on the steep street, out of which came a chink-chink-chink sound. In the window were a small number of alabaster sculptures and trinkets.

In addition to the distinction of being one of the earliest visitable towns from the ancient Etruscan civilization, Volterra is also a center of alabaster, a soft, light-colored, translucent stone mined in the area. Volterra is filled with shops containing beautiful alabaster creations, from simple items such as decorative wine stoppers and coasters to large, elaborate sculptures.

But this little workshop caught my eye for some reason, so I stopped to peek inside. There was an elderly gentleman working away at his bench, amidst a decades-old clutter of alabaster fragments and finished products. I had to meet this man. There were too many stories in that place for me to just walk on.

His name is Giuliano (pron. Juliano) and he is well into his 90’s. Two things about him struck me immediately: he looks much younger than his age, and his hands! His hands seemed huge in proportion to the rest of his slender, fit body, like MicheIangelo’s David’s — and they were as white as the alabaster he has been working most of his life. I asked if he minded my asking him some questions, and he welcomed me in with no questions asked. He has been working with alabaster for…wait for it…75 years. He was there during that Nazi threat, he was there during the Mussolini days, and he has been there since Tuscany became such a sought-after tourist destination.

A few weeks later, when my wife and I brought one of our tour groups to Volterra, I couldn’t wait to introduce them to Giugliano and hear some of his stories. I popped my head in to greet him. He was as cordial as ever, but it became quickly evident that he didn’t remember our conversation just weeks earlier. No matter, I thought — if he’s still willing to talk to us, we will still enjoy hearing him talk about his beloved home town and his craft. Since his shop is too small to fit more than three or four people, Giugliano came and stood in his doorway while I made my best attempt at interpreting his Italian into English for our group.

Since then, we have taken four more tour groups to Volterra, and you can bet we made it a point to stop and see Giugliano. And no, he doesn’t remember me from one time to the next. But he remains such a delightful person to talk to, and this way we can be sure that he doesn’t tire of answering our questions!

People like Giugliano are what makes travel such a deeply human experience. It’s one thing to admire the stunning Tuscan countryside and wander the quaint streets of towns like Volterra; it’s quite another to meet real people who are among the 12,000 who make their home there, to hear their stories and get a glimpse into how they see the world. You can be sure you’ll come away changed in some small way.

Starbucks' Most Audacious (and Craziest?) Move Yet

Starbucks Italy
Starbucks Italy

There is a reason so many of the coffee terms at Starbucks and other coffee shops sound Italian. They are. Except that some of them are misused. We'll get to that in a minute, but the big news is that Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz has decided to circle back to the city where he first had the idea to create a new coffee shop concept: Milan, Italy. The very idea of a Starbucks in the land of the original espresso is a bold move for sure, and many are those who say it will never work. Don't let the menu peppered with Italian words fool you; Starbucks culture is worlds apart from Italian coffee culture. A few significant differences:

  • Good luck convincing an Italian to drink coffee out of a cardboard cup.
  • Capuccino is served in the morning ONLY. I've even been to Italian coffee bars where there is a sign stating so in no uncertain terms for American tourists.
  • All the other variations on a coffee theme Starbucks has concocted over the years, with other franchises following suit, might be a hard sell in Italy. Pumpkin flavor in coffee? Almond soy half-caff? In Italy, caffè è caffè.
  • The idea of hanging out with your coffee drink and a laptop for a couple of hours is practically unknown in Italy. The current m.o. is to drink your espresso quickly, often standing up, at the corner coffee bar, then going on about your day.

At this point, Starbucks is planning just one experimental store in Milan. Many eyes will be on that one location to see if the idea might fly in the rest of the country.

Just for fun, here are the literal meanings of some of the Italian words you'll find on a Starbucks menu board or other American coffee shop:

  • Espresso - express
  • Latte - milk
  • Macchiato - stained (although Italians do use the term caffè machiatto to mean "coffee with milk")
  • Affogato - drowned
  • Venti - twenty
  • Mocha - besides the meaning understood in English, a mocha is also the Italian name for the quintessential Italian coffeemaker pictured here:
mocha
mocha

Do you have a prediction? Will it fly?